Down here in spring training, the excitement around camp is palpable. A long and arduous 2007 left the clubhouse hungry for more, and with the 2008 season only days away, there's a certain buzz lingering in the air. To a man, this team is eager to prove to the world just how good it can be.
Last season brought its successes, but there is always room for improvement, and the motto in camp from day one has been "dare to do more". The coaching staff has challenged the players to meet higher levels of expectations, and the players have responded. No longer will the team tolerate lackadaisical practices or a casual approach to the games. Ask anyone around the dugout and they'll tell you the same thing: this year, things are different. This year, the attitude is more focused and more professional. The team may have its weaknesses, but thanks to a rigorous spring training, poor preparation won't be one of them.
While the team is certain of its ability to do the big things, too often it felt let down last year by struggles with the little ones. Too many runners on first never made it to second. Too many men were stranded at third. Too many throws missed the cutoff. In order to address these concerns, the coaching staff has drilled into its players' heads a renewed concentration on and appreciation for the fundamentals. Since the beginning of camp this spring, situational hitting has been one of the main daily staples. The team hopes that, by setting a goal of scoring more runners from third, it will lead to a few more wins. And these few wins may end up making all the difference.
Offensively, there's an air of confidence that the lineup will be able to score runs on a consistent basis. With an optimal blend of big boppers, veteran support, and talented youth, the group is solid from top to bottom, and the team intends to keep the pressure on the opposing pitcher by never throwing away an at bat. The hitters gave away too many easy outs last year by swinging at bad pitches, and while the coaching staff loved the lineup's aggressiveness, in camp it has worked with the bats to be more discerning and selective. By swinging at more strikes and fewer balls, the lineup's goal is to never give the pitcher a break, racking up high pitch counts and in so doing getting into the bullpen early. This, the team feels, is a recipe for tremendous success.
On the pitching side of things, the coaches are hoping for continued development by their young arms to complement the veteran workhorses. The starting rotation that's taken shape is deep 1 through 5, with every pitcher capable of throwing strikes and keeping his team in the game. And while the bullpen had its ups and downs last season, some new faces promise to fill in the gaps and help protect late leads. With the pitching coach coming to camp and stressing to every arm the importance of throwing strike one, this group of pitchers is determined never to give control of the at bat to the hitter.
Working in the team's advantage this year is that the coaches feel they have more depth than ever before. Where last year the team struggled with a few unfortunate injuries, this time around the team believes that it's better equipped to deal with any such recurrence. There are bats on the bench and in AAA capable of filling in for weeks at a time, and in the event that a starter has to go on the shelf, there are both left- and right-handed options down on the farm. Around the diamond the coaches feel they are at least two-deep at every position and eight-deep on the mound, and this depth should help keep the team firing on all cylinders, even if a regular or two needs to be sidelined.
Down here in spring training, it's not difficult for even the most casual of fans to sense the swagger. Throughout last season there were stretches during which this team played like the best team in baseball, and with some new faces and another year of experience under its belt, the clubhouse is confident that, going forward, it can achieve greater consistency. And this consistency, it believes, will be enough to propel it to its rightful place at the top of the standings. To the people who have their doubts about the team's ability, the team itself asks for but one favor: give us a chance. Give us a chance and you'll see what we've seen all along.
At the team's behest, I implore you to fasten your seatbelts. For this summer, you will be in for one wild ride.
(*-Does not apply to Pirates)